Wrecked on a Reef:
A Community's Effort to Save Their Livelihood

by Elizabeth Weinberg

Late on a Thursday night in April 2016, the fishing vessel No. 1 Ji Hyun lost its main engines and grounded on the reef just off the west side of Aunu’u Island in National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa. While the crew evacuated safely, the grounding occurred on a remote island in an even more remote archipelago. It would be months before the 62-foot vessel could be safely removed from the reef—and it would take an entire community to do it.

Fa’a samoa, or the Samoan way, is central to everyday life in American Samoa. The foundation of Samoan culture, it places importance on the dignity and achievements of the group rather than the individual. With that in mind, National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa places a high value on partnerships with sanctuary communities and maintains great respect for fa’a Samoa. The vessel grounding highlighted just how important this community collaboration is for maintaining a strong sanctuary and protecting the marine ecosystems of American Samoa.

The stakes were high. The grounding affected the people of Aunu’u every day the vessel remained on the reef: No. 1 Ji Hyun rested on one of the community's best fishing grounds. "This is an intact community that survives on what the reef provides," explains Gene Brighouse, of National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa. The vessel not only was destroying the reef, but fuel and two tons of loose sand onboard continued to pose a significant threat as well.

When the vessel first grounded, the Coast Guard and sanctuary staff worked together to respond to the event. But they faced some major challenges. The vessel could only be towed during daylight hours at high tide of at least three feet. During low tide it perched precariously, crushing the reef. Only two of the three tugs in Pago Pago harbor had the necessary towing capacity to remove the fishing boat, and they were in heavy demand: any large vessel, like a cruise ship or a cargo ship, that enters Pago Pago must be escorted by one of these tugs. And what's more, these tugs were built in the 1960's and are not set up for towing or salvage. The Coast Guard made several removal attempts, but ultimately, once any residual oil was removed from No. 1 Ji Hyun, jurisdiction was turned over to NOAA.

With the salvage now resting on sanctuary staff to get the job done, the sanctuary recognized the need for the village of Aunu’u's help. The village was key: it was up to Aunu’u residents to allow salvage contractors onto the island whenever weather and sea conditions cooperated for removal attempts, and it was up to them to keep community members from getting too close to the vessel. "You can never go wrong with having community engagement and getting their support," says Atuatasi Lelei Peau, deputy superintendent of National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa and one of the sanctuary's leads for the vessel removal.

After several unsuccessful removal attempts, some in the village of Aunu’u were doubtful that NOAA would be able to remove the vessel. But Atuatasi, a high talking chief in his community in American Samoa, worked closely with Fonoti Simanu, a high chief from Aunu’u, to communicate the removal process. Fonoti is a member of the Sanctuary Advisory Council, and with his dual positions he served as an ideal go-between: as high chief, he serves as a voice of the village, while as Sanctuary Advisory Council member, he is familiar with the sanctuary and sanctuary staff. Fonoti was at the table for nearly every meeting about the removal process, while Atuatasi, too, attended village council meetings to keep the council up to speed.

Finally, on a calm, clear August day with light winds and just the right amount of surf, the sanctuary, along with the help of multiple partners, successfully removed the vessel. Set-up for the removal began before sunrise, as the crew lined up two tugs for a tandem tow and dealt with breaking lines. But once the vessel began to move, it came off in about a minute. "It went straight out, and it was almost like you couldn't believe what you were looking at, after hundreds of hours over the previous three months," says Joe Paulin, the sanctuary's conservation ecology and policy specialist. Two hours later, the team dropped the vessel off in the shipyard at Pago Pago harbor.

Now, the sanctuary is working to assess the damage the vessel did to the reef. While the vessel's hull stayed intact the entire time, it moved along the reef, turning coral to rubble. As part of the overall assessment, sanctuary staff is also determining lessons learned: the grounding has highlighted the need for greater response capabilities and supplies, and to create clearer processes for accountability from vessel owners who ground within the sanctuary waters.

More than anything, the grounding has made it clear just how important it is to work with the local community. "The process should start with the village and it should end with the village," says Brighouse. While some in Aunu’u were originally reluctant to allow the sanctuary to expand into their waters back in 2012, the grounding was an opportunity to show how the sanctuary can help support their culture and their way of life. The sanctuary's work now, says Brighouse, "is to seize opportunities to really galvanize the community and their understanding."